An Obligation To The Dead


The oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States would probably be an official historical landmark site today, but no one knows where it’s located.

Shortly after the original group of 23 Jews from Brazil arrived in then-New Amsterdam in 1654, they founded Congregation Shearith Israel then successfully petitioned city authorities to establish a Jewish burial ground on “a little hook of land,” most likely on the sparsely developed island of Manhattan.

The site of that first Jewish cemetery is lost; Shearith Israel, the only Jewish congregation here from 1654 until 1825, set up a series of cemeteries over the subsequent years.

This week the congregation completed the first phase of renovations on an 80-by-120-feet patch of land in lower midtown that is known as the Third Cemetery but is really the fourth.

In a brief ceremony under an overcast sky and the branches of dogwood and crabapple trees, Rabbi Hayyim Angel of Shearith Israel read Hebrew blessings and spoke of “the religious obligation of cemetery upkeep.”

The ceremony marks the end of the initial, decade-long removal of debris and repair of gravestones in the site, usually locked, which is bordered on three sides by towering apartment buildings. A stone path cuts across the field of neatly cut grass and repaired gravestones.

Designer-educator Christine G. H. Franck explained that the area was restored to look like it did in photos dating back to the 1930s.

The cemetery “has been transformed,” said Edward Kirkland, chair of the Community Board 4 landmarks committee “The stones were all over the place.”

Kirkland was part of a small group of invited participants that included preservation officials and descendants of Shearith Israel’s long-gone congregants.

“They are our spiritual ancestors,” Rabbi Angel said, pointing to the resting places of some 250 onetime members of the congregation. “Were it not for their efforts, we would not be here today as an organized committee.”

The cemetery on West 21st Street off of Sixth Avenue served as an active burial ground from 1829 until burials south of 86th Street were banned in 1852. Among the approximately 150 gravestones there are some from the 1700s, moved from the synagogue’s First Cemetery on St. James Place opposite Chatham Square.

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